True stories : Bust-up on the buses

Deregulation has meant danger in Manchester
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The Independent Culture
The last bus from Piccadilly station in Manchester is a 3am wagonload of drunk, skint desperadoes - sleepers, shouters and lads at the back still trying to pull as the night draws closer to an empty bed. Anyone lucky or clear-headed or frugal enough to have left the last watering hole with 70p more than the exact right change for the bus can treat himself to some ancient chips from a hole in the wall where, in all the years I have patronised the last bus, I have never seen anyone actually do any cooking.

Last Saturday's bus was as old as the chips and twice as smelly. The downstairs windows were caked in mud, the inside decorated with dust and styrofoam and garnished with ketchup. We piled in, paid our quids and waited for tickets. None was forthcoming.

The driver, a plainclothes man, just laughed. "I don't have to give you a ticket," he said. "It's my bus."

These days, it seems, anyone can run a bus company in Manchester. All you need is a clapped-out 1970s jalopy with an MOT and you're away. Tickets, uniforms and meaningful timetables are largely the stuff of nostalgia, the public transport equivalent of John Major's warm evenings on the cricket green. This is the brave new "market in public transport" pioneered by the late Sir Nicholas Ridley, who disliked the Germans and local authorities.

Mancunians didn't need last week's report by the Public Transport Information Unit to tell them the deregulation bus services outside London are in crisis. "The competitive model," said its author, Bruce Allan, rather politely, "is inappropriate." Now there are 76 separate bus companies scrapping for a share of 249 million Greater Manchester passenger journeys a year, deserting the remoter areas of town and swamping the Wilmslow Road student run, the busiest bus route in Europe. Wilmslow Road isn't a road at all anymore, it's a daily bus convention. "We couldn't tell you how many actual buses there are," says Anne Davies, the hapless, helpful woman at the transport authority. "The only way to find out is literally to go down there and physically count them." So I did, literally and figuratively: at Owens Park, the 3,000-bed university hall of residence, there were 71 buses in half an hour.

Fingland's (brown and white) won the prize in the veterans' category with an N-Reg coach - I make that 1975, the year most most of the Owens Park third years were born. South Manchester (mustard and green) won the touting award - staying a full 20 minutes at the single stop on a busy main road in the hope of loading up with students before sloping reluctantly off.

Fingland's (brown and white) and GM South (orange and brown) take it in turns to hog the stop. There are even blokes with anoraks and walkie- talkies hustling kids on to their buses. "Come on, love. This one's going next." Every 30 seconds, buses went past with so few people that you could count them as they passed - two, four, seven passengers luxuriating in acres of double decker.

Two weeks ago, the "market in public transport services" produced a particularly healthy illustration of the benefits of competition. Andrew Robinson of Dennis Coaches was sitting at a stop when a driver from GM Buses South came on and said he was blocked in - a not uncommon feature of the "market". The ensuing debate about efficiency and customer service allegedly degenerated into a scuffle. The GM Buses driver, Colin Parsonage, has been charged with assault and damage to a ticket machine.

Great stuff. In the bad old days of public ownership, all you would ever get between drivers would be a wave and flash of the headlights as they passed each other. Now, with deregulation, passengers can get a ride in an antique vehicle, see a scrap and still have change out of £1.10.

I politely asked Mike Gray, "route manager" for MTL, what the hell this was all about. He confirmed what any idiot who has ever waited for a bus knows - this isn't a market at all. MTL commissioned a passenger survey in Oldham and found a single factor rules customer choice. Put simply, customers will get the first bus that comes. A company could serve coffee and cake and have Sade playing upstairs and nobody would wait an extra minute.

So the only way for one bus company to do better than another is to get to the bus stop first. This encourages "competitive" driving and "sandwich tactics", where two buses from one company block in another, allowing one of their own a free run down the road. "There's a war on up here," groaned Andrew Robinson. "And one day somebody's going to get killed."

So that is what deregulation has brought to the city - a bus system you could die for.